How to have a happy December

In the spirit of having a low-key December (I know that’s not really a thing), I set modest goals before we packed up to go to my mom’s last week. 1. Finish all the laundry–that’s essential, because coming home to a stinky pile of clothes is not relaxing. 2. Pack–the kids packed their own clothes for the first time, which was more relaxing than I anticipated, once I realized it didn’t matter, they’d spend the whole week in pajamas. And 3. Vacuum–who was I kidding? That didn’t happen.

This was the second Christmas without my dad, and his presence still fills the house. For me–and I know it’s different for everyone–it hasn’t faded, which is mostly a testament to the power of his personality. Dad was almost a caricature of himself in many ways. Not one to do things by halves. Even if, as was true so much in the last few years of his life, that meant sitting in his favorite chair and watching golf or Fox News with his favorite drink at hand. By God, he did that in such a way and so often that to this day I can’t look at that chair without picturing him in it.

I think he would have really enjoyed this Christmas. Many Manhattans were drunk in his honor. There are new ornaments on the tree–a golf ball and a miniature bottle of Jim Beam–to hang next to the mementos he and Mom collected over the years. And between the quiet moments when we were overwhelmed by missing him, the laughter was back. Sometimes so hard it brought tears to our eyes.

Laughing as a family–it doesn’t get any better than that. It was worth the 700 miles of driving. The who-was-I-kidding-frantic hours of preparation. The headaches and the messes and the dishes, oh my god the dishes, but at the end a meal we all ate together. There is no such thing as low-key this time of year, not when your family is half a country away in the heart of the Great White North, not even if it’s a god-awful sixty degrees, which is almost worse, because then what do I do with the kids when I can’t throw them out in the snow?

But there are surprises, wonderful surprises. Cousins putting down their iPads and opening a Season Workshop, working all day to make (and sell!) construction paper crafts. Beautiful art, carefully colored. Beloved aunts and favorite uncles. Cherished gifts.

I put these gifts in my heart–there’s room, because that last load of laundry? I didn’t actually do it–and know that my dad will keep them safe.

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How to have a happy road trip: Bring the dog!

On Being Better

One morning last week I had coffee with a dear friend. After, I drove home, climbed into bed, and pulled a pillow over my head for three hours. She was probably in the same place: taking longer to recover than the time we spent together.

But it was worth it. Not for the coffee, which was excellent, or even the quiet morning of conversation, which was delightful, or even the lunch of Korean beef stew she had prepared, which was delicious.

She understands—she’s a mom with chronic headaches too.

We talked about the usual things—our kids, their troubles at school, the challenges of their busy lives. But also—how hard it is to be sick when someone else is relying on you. The phases of disability. And what it means to be better.

Why is it that when you’re sick or in pain, every day, better is such a loaded word?

Better is a frame of mind. It means admitting something’s wrong. Why is it so hard to admit that without feeling shame?

Better is okay to put aside. It’s okay to pretend: “I’m just fine the way I am.” Even if: I can’t do as much as I used to. I can’t do as much as everyone else. I’m out on disability. Or any of the other things that get me down. Sometimes, a little bit of denial is perfectly fine.

Better comes in small doses. Yesterday I didn’t get out of bed. Today I walked to the mailbox. I declare: I’m better.

Better is a moving target. One day’s better is another day’s sick.

Better is a little bit of sunshine. Wow, that feels good. One sunny day can really turn things around.

Better is one day where I only have to take care of ME.

Better is beyond your control. If you’re sick, you’re already doing everything you can just to get through each day. Being expected to heal yourself—when all the doctors you’ve seen couldn’t—is obviously impossible.

Better is different for everyone. Just because my friend and I both have headaches doesn’t mean we’re both fighting the same battles. She gets better as the day goes on. My pain gets worse. No one knows what you’re going through except you, even if your daily battles have nothing to do with illness or pain. Everyone’s carrying something up a hill, every day. No one can forgive you for not being better…except you.

So today, do whatever it takes to lighten your load, even a little.

Put down that pack.

Take yourself, just as you are.

You are just the way you are meant to be.

You don’t need to BE better.

You can do this the way you are.

And someday,

Yes,

Things will GET better.

But YOU don’t have to make them that way.